The four-time Grammy winner, out with the new album “Soul 2,” discusses his separation from Heidi Klum, shares the two songs that he believes are the best songs ever written and offers his thoughts on President Obama’s singing voice.
Tavis: Please welcome Seal back to this program. The multiple platinum-selling artist has just released a new collection of cover songs featuring soul and R&B classics from folks like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and The O’Jays and many more, for that matter.
Here now some of the truly iconic songs featured on the new disc from Seal, “Soul 2.”
Tavis: So it was good enough the first time. You wanted some more?
Seal: [Laugh] I did, I did. The important – well, first of all, it’s great to be here.
Tavis: Good to see you. Good to see you again.
Seal: Yeah, I wanted some more, but what was more important for all of us, Trevor Horn, David Foster and myself, was to not be formulaic. We didn’t want to repeat the formula or to turn the whole thing into a formula.
There was a reason for doing the first “Soul” album which, I believe, we talked about. I felt that, at the time, those songs – there were a lot of American civil rights songs in the first “Soul” album, “People Get Ready,” “A Change is Gonna Come.”
I felt that, considering what was going on at the time, you know, the presidential campaign, that was the voice of America and that was the reason I sang those songs. I was inspired to make that album.
With “Soul 2,” what we were most conscious of was not cashing in on the success of “Soul 1.” There had to be a reason other than the fact that “Soul 1” was commercially successful. There had to be a reason, a passionate reason for doing it.
So Trevor and I decided to pick songs that were very personal to me, songs like “Wishing on a Star,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love TKO,” which isn’t in that little clip, which I really love.
Tavis: Teddy Bear.
Seal: [Laugh] So all of those songs that I’ve just mentioned, I bought those songs as a teenager. I remember buying those songs. And I believe that songs pretty much are like – an album can be like a musical diary full of songs that it chronicles different chapters in your life.
So all of those songs were personal to me because I actually bought them and they pretty much inspired the way that I sing today which is why we did “Soul 2.”
Tavis: I wish I had time in this conversation to ask you about every song on the CD. I do not, but I want to go back to the piece that we saw to start the show of you singing snippets of certain songs because, while we’re sitting here in the studio as you’re watching the video at home, Seal has commentary, albeit brief commentary, on every song that you saw him singing in that little sizzle reel there, if you will.
So I want to go back to the sizzle reel and just pick up on a few of the songs we just heard you sing and get you to expound on the commentary you were giving us here in studio while the audience was watching. So the first song, as I recall, was “What’s Going On?”
Seal: Yeah, “What’s Going On.”
Tavis: Marvin Gaye, and you said that’s the one song I didn’t want to do.
Seal: That’s the one that I didn’t want to do because I think my two biggest musical influences from a vocal point, there were two things that matter in music to me, the song and the voice, you know.
I don’t want to do that song because Marvin Gaye – I refer to him as the tone king. He doesn’t have to do a lot of vocal gymnastics or melisma, as I believe it’s called. He can sing one note and his whole DNA, everything you want to know about that beautiful soul, is in that note. So it was pretty much hallowed ground for me.
Also, from a soul point of view, I think it’s a perfect song, so why do it? There has to be some justification for doing that song. In actual fact, David Foster tried to get me to sing it on the first “Soul” album and I refused because I didn’t think I could add anything to it.
Now hopefully what you will notice when you listen to this album or when people listen to it is that it’s my take on it. It’s not just me kind of changing it for the sake of changing it. I actually have a passionate reason for singing the song. So, therefore, I had to find a justification for doing “What’s Going On.”
How do you take a perfect song sung by one of arguably the greatest male voice in the history of music and put my take on it? What is my reason for doing that? So Trevor said, “I have an idea.” He said, “Why don’t I take the first third of the song, take out the drums and make it purely orchestral?”
And that was my access point. That was my reason. That was my justification for singing that song because, when you do that, you see, you don’t change the song. You don’t change the integrity of the song, but what you do is you make it even more lyrical and even more personal.
And Trevor’s reason for getting me to do that song is he said it is perhaps more relevant now or certainly just as important or just as relevant now as it was when the late Marvin Gaye originally wrote it and sang it.
Tavis: When you refer to that song, “What’s Going On” as a perfect song – this is all those crazy debates that those of us who are music lovers have all the time. At least, my boys and I have this conversation all the time about who are the greatest songwriters and what are the greatest songs and who had the best tone and whose diction was best.
Part of that was crazy, nonsensical, that mean nothing conversations. But to my mind, and I’ve said this many times, I believe that “What’s Going On” may very well be the best song ever written.
That’s a strange thing to say because there’s so many great songs written. Pardon my English, but if it ain’t the best song ever written, where would you rank it? How do you describe – when you said perfect, I guess that’s it.
Seal: By the way, we have those conversations as well, me and my boys. When I’m asked that question, there are two songs that come to mind.
Seal: I think it all really depends on how you are as a person, where your priorities lie, your outlook on life, what is important to you. I like to think of myself as a people person. I like to think of myself as a humanitarian.
So songs that deal with people’s issues, songs that speak directly to people and songs that speak to a wide majority of people, songs that speak to the whole world, to me, those songs, if they are delivered with the proper vehicle, i.e., being the voice, those are the songs that really qualify to be the perfect song or the best song ever written.
For that reason, whenever I’m asked, I always quote “What’s Going On” and “Imagine” by John Lennon because they’re so idealistic, but they have a sense of melancholy and therefore a sense of realism as well as being idealistic.
They’re not just fluffy and, you know, “Oh, what a wonderful…”, not that there’s anything wrong with that song. But what a wonderful, beautiful world it is and let’s all get together and make it happy, you know.
They are delivered in a way that it’s intravenous. It gets right to the very core of the listener. “What’s Going On” is conversational, it’s so engaging. You know, the very title of that song is like me sitting down with you and saying, “Tavis, what’s going on?”
Tavis: And it’s timeless. You can ask what’s going on in the ’60s, you can ask what’s going on today, you can ask what’s going on. Same thing with “Imagine.”
Seal: I watched an interview. You used that word timeless and I’m glad you brought it up because I forgot to mention that.
I watched an interview with Bono once and somebody was saying to him, “You know, you guys have been around now for 26 or 27 years or whatever it was and you have successfully over the years and over the decades found a way of reinventing yourself with these new ideas, but there are other bands now like Coldplay and Radio Head and this band, you know, who are positioned to take your mantle. Do you ever worry that you will run out of ideas to keep reinventing yourself?”
He kind of looked at the camera with a very wry smile and he said, “You know, ideas come and go, but songs last forever and we have the songs.”
I think that is very much the case when you talk about the timeless aspect of “What’s Going On,” the timeless aspect of “Imagine.” Those are songs that people will be playing 100 years from now and they will have the same effect because they are raw, they speak to the masses, they are conversational and they are relevant. They will always be relevant.
Tavis: The second song – we’ve talked so long about “What’s Going On” because it’s such a great song that I almost forgot what the second song in that sizzle reel was, “Let’s Stay Together.”
Tavis: I can’t imagine you have not seen this clip, but before I ask Seal about why he chose “Let’s Stay Together,” let me play a clip for you now of the president of the United States just some days ago giving just about an eight-second rift of “Let’s Stay Together.”
Tavis: The president of the United States with Al Green sitting in the audience at the Apollo is riffing “Let’s Stay Together.”
Seal: Well, first of all, and I’m sure you’ve met him too, having met President Obama a couple of times, nothing surprises me with that gentleman. I can’t think of anyone who is more of a leader and more charismatic than that. So it doesn’t actually surprise me.
Tavis: It did surprise me. I didn’t think he would sing that. It surprised me [laugh].
Seal: What doesn’t surprise me, it had a crack in it.
Seal: What surprised me was how good he sounded. It made me feel quite small actually because, the truth be told, I just didn’t realize that his voice was that great.
Tavis: He held the note, he held the note.
Seal: And he nailed it. It wasn’t like he just kind of threw it out there. He went after it [laugh]. You can tell.
Tavis: That’s bold to do. That’d be like me singing, you know, one of your songs with you sitting on the front row. Al Green is in the audience.
Seal: It’s worse [laugh]. Worse than that, he really went after it. Honestly, I like him, I think so highly of him, but it made me listen to my version again. I started scratching and I’m thinking, wow, does it actually sound as good? It’s a good thing he didn’t actually cover the song. Because of that, I’d really be in trouble [laugh].
Tavis: Why do Al Green, though? It’s a great song, but what made you want to do that one, though?
Seal: You know, I listened to the album, all of us, Foster, Trevor Horn and myself. We collectively didn’t think the album would be complete. I mean, one of the other things that we wanted to do with this record was to add variety. Again, “Let’s Stay Together” is one of the songs I bought when it came out.
We felt that, you know, an album has to read like a book. In my opinion, it does. It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. “Let’s Stay Together” was one of those songs. Given that the overall theme of this album is a very romantic one, interestingly enough, it’s a very romantic one and “Let’s Stay Together” is one of those songs that it just seemed to fit.
You know, I have, again, talking about the things that I love most about our profession, songs and voices. You know, Al Green’s voice and, as a songwriter, just an incredible songwriter, but his voice, we couldn’t leave that song out.
Tavis: There’s never a good time to raise this kind of question, but you just gave me an opening. Speaking of songwriters hit it and quit it. I know James Brown isn’t on this CD, but James would say hit it and quit it. You mentioned a moment ago that, interestingly enough, to use your phrase, this album has a very romantic feel to it.
I was thinking a moment ago when you mentioned “Love TKO” and “Love Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the news of late recently about you and your wife separating. Two questions. One, what do you make of the timing of that, given that, to your point, this album has such a romantic feel to it?
Seal: It does.
Tavis: And number two, how do you stay focused on the project and the music when something so significant in your life is falling apart?
Seal: Well, I’m glad you asked that question. First of all, I want to say, Tavis, that you are one of the most respectful human beings that I’ve ever met.
But to answer your question, in short, we have a tremendous amount of love and respect for each other. And also, of course, our children are our first priority. I think we’ve pretty much said everything that we needed to say about it in the statement that we released.
But how does one stay focused? Just because you decide to separate, I don’t think you all of a sudden stop loving each other. I don’t think you all of a sudden stop becoming friends, especially when there are other things to take into consideration, like family.
So to be honest, it’s not really that difficult and it’s not really that much of an issue. What one has to do in this situation is to remain civil and to retain one’s dignity and to be professional and to understand that we are not the only people on this planet that go through this. It is just unfortunately a chapter of life.
Tavis: I take your point about having to remain civil and keeping your dignity. Not that you need to look to others for advice or counsel, but there have been so many ugly break-ups in this town, so many ugly and bitter and protracted separations and divorces, just mud-slinging everywhere in this town, I take it you’ve seen stuff that you and Heidi do not want to emulate.
Seal: An interesting point. It’s not really a question of not wanting to emulate it. We’re just not those kind of people. We never really have been. You know, we’ve never been attracted to that, so, of course, it’s a difficult situation that we have to handle right now and it’s never easy.
In terms of our love and respect for each other, that hasn’t changed at all. Yes, these are difficult times, but there’s a lot to be positive about and I think that, when two people feel that way about each other, it is easier to make that transition.
Tavis: I thank you for your compliment about my being respectful. I try to be on this program.
Seal: Well, you just are. I mean, in fact, for those who don’t know, you asked me. Most people wouldn’t even have the decency to ask me, but you asked me beforehand whether or not I thought that you could go there. Because I do trust you, because I have been on your show before and because I hold your integrity with the highest esteem, I felt comfortable with you asking me that question.
Tavis: I said all that to say thank you for even indulging because you didn’t have to do that and I appreciate it. I want to move past that now, past it but connected to it.
Because some of the best music I’ve ever heard were written by artists when they had something to say because of an experience that they endured, and I suspect you’re no different than most other artists, I wonder if, down the road, you think that this will be the stuff that might make for some great music from Seal.
Seal: [Laugh] Go on, Tavis. I’m being honest.
Seal: You know, it’s a funny question you ask.
Tavis: You can’t keep doing covers forever. I mean, you got the rights to more stuff.
Seal: It’s very good you ask. I remember – who was it I was speaking to? I was speaking to someone once. I can’t remember who it was, a very wise person. We were talking about, you know, there’s an old adage we use in our profession, to sing the blues, you have to pay your dues, which I believe is a concise way of asking that question.
I used to think that was true, to a large extent, so whenever I would go into making an album, you’d almost subconsciously try and create a mood or to try and feel kind of sadness or to be more emotional in order to kind of sing songs that other people will find emotional.
But, you know, I did learn when I wrote my fourth album which had “Love’s Divine” on it. Also, subsequent albums after that when I actually got married, they told me that, you know, you don’t have to do that. You can actually write songs that do touch people when you’re in a really happy state of mind.
The subject matter of those songs don’t always have to be about whatever it is you’re going through at the time. You can draw upon things that have happened to you very, very early on in your life or that you see happening to other people. So to answer your question and not to skate around it, do I think these will make for great songs?
I hadn’t really given it any thought, but what I will say is that every note that I have sang in the last year, every song, even if it is not about my family, every performance I’ve given in the last eight years since meeting this beautiful woman and having these incredible gifts that she has given me, has come from that place. It has always come from that place of having this incredible happiness in my life, so the next album I write will be no different.
Now whether they will be specifically targeted in answering question that, you know, I doubt very much whether that will happen. But, you know, you’re kind of damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. So I’m sure, if I sing anything remotely resembling a love song, people will make a connection.
You know, there’s an old saying which actually is probably not appropriate. People have short-term memories and I don’t know whether or not people will be that bothered, especially given the time it takes me to make albums, I doubt whether people will be that bothered in trying to decipher exactly what I mean.
Tavis: Well, the one thing I’ve always loved about your music and about you is that you are authentic and whatever you sing, whether it’s an original score from you or covers, the authenticity in your voice always comes through and I’m always honored to have you on this program, especially today because you’ve been so kind to answer these questions.
Seal: We haven’t talked about football.
Tavis: No, we didn’t, but I want to talk about football in the minute that I left because I did not know you were such a huge football and a New England Tom Brady fan. So how excited are you that Brady is back?
Seal: You know, I think that the biggest bane of Coach Belichick and Tom Brady’s life is the fact that they came one short of doing something that nobody has done in the history of the NFL before and that’s what they will be taking into that game and my money’s on the Patriots.
Tavis: Well, all right. My time with Seal is up tonight on this program. This has been a PBS conversation for an ESPN conversation, for an ESPN conversation with Seal [laugh] ’cause this guy’s got something to say about the Patriots, about their offense, about their defense, about Eli Manning and the Giants and about Tim Tebow.
Go to our website at PBS.org and hear our conversation with Seal about the Super Bowl. You don’t want to miss those conversations. Now the new project from Seal is called “Soul 2.”
Seal: Oh, yeah, we were talking about that. We were talking about that one, right? I just remembered that.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. The new project is called “Soul 2.” I love it and I think you will too. Seal, I love you and I’m glad to have you on this program.
Seal: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to have you back.
Seal: It was great to be here.
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